The Smith School is one of a kind. On West 86th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, everything from its location on the upper levels of the Jewish Cultural Center (accessible only by stairs or a single aging elevator) to its array of services for 50 middle school and high school students is unique. The alternative school provides individual attention and oversight to all students, instilling in them the confidence for safe passage to young adulthood.
Principal Karen Smith founded the school in 1990, endeavoring to craft an organic learning environment that catered to students much like those that used to come over to her house after classes when she was teaching in Los Angeles.
Smith is a place where each student is made to feel singular and significant in an environment that is both relaxed and individualized. The school's five-to-one, or even one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio was designed for kids who have had difficulty adjusting to the sometimes merciless environments in city public schools. Smith is a safe haven and second chance for those who could not fit in a public education system that serves nearly 1 million students.
“Oftentimes if students are slipping through the cracks in their old school they begin to have doubts in their confidence and abilities,” the school’s full-time social worker, Rebecca Levin, said. “And then they come here and recognize in a smaller setting that they are capable and they can excel.”
One 16-year-old’s language disorder caused his parents to take him out of three public schools and place him in a homeschooling program. Until they found Smith. The parents attribute their son’s progress to the school’s warm environment and educators’ devotion.
“Smith has taken him from zero to something. As an educator, I’ve never met somebody like Karen Smith,” his father, a public high school teacher, said. “She’s remarkable because she will figure out a plan for every child at that school to make them feel great. Get a load of this: Knowing how he struggled to socialize and how he loves video games, Karen sanctioned a video game club in our apartment. So he was able to start having some friends over every Thursday and they got credit for it too!”
The boy, now a junior, started at the school in 2012. Smith provided him with confidence and the skills needed for success; he learned how to read at age 12, made the honor roll and flew by himself this spring break to visit a university in Florida. He’s thinking about studying video game design there.
Smith takes up three floors: one for its eight classrooms, where classes with a maximum size of 5 or 6 are held; another where the entire student body has gym class for two hours every Friday; and the third dedicated to the one- on-one tutoring available full time for kids who need it.
There is also a cultivation of the arts; the school’s narrow hallway, which leads into its eight of classrooms, is lined with students’ paintings and mosaics. The Smith School Rock Band has a legacy as well, having raised $1,100 on Kickstarter to record an EP of their original music in 2012. Students are also given control and ownership of the yearbook, participate in various clubs, and are given the freedom to explore their curiosities. One senior, Maddy Tuten, expressed an interest in psychology. Through an independent study program, she is now the only Smith student studying the discipline.
“I like going to Smith because I’m around a bunch of people I like all day,” she said. “Everybody really understands and embraces each other and their differences.” She has been attending the school since sixth grade after having struggled with anxiety at her former school. After a year of Smith’s individualized, one-on-one teaching program, Tuten joined Smith’s regular small classes and gradually overcame her fear of failure. “Smith has supported me through a lot and sort of acted as a second home and second family. When I first got to Smith, school was not a place that I wanted to be at all,” she said. “They understood and accepted that. It wasn’t a problem.”
Tuten is thinking about majoring in psychology at either Hunter College or Simmons College starting this fall.
“You get to know kids, especially those who have been here for a long time, and their families,” said Brendan Klages, Smith’s high school English teacher. He interrupted himself to call to a Smith student walking down the hall: “Do you need something or are you just grabbing a glass of water? OK. Just behave yourself.” Klages, who has been teaching at Smith for four years, emphasized the diversity of the population as well as the difference that being in a small environment makes. He’s been able to differentiate between students and their learning levels and create a program where everybody moves forward together even as individual students continue getting the guidance they need.
There is a daily 45-minute study hall for all students, an after-school program where students can complete their homework with teachers and a two-hour staff meeting each Friday.
“We sit down and hammer out topics such as who’s not completing homework, who’s struggling and who’s class it’s happening in,” he said. “So there’s a lot of communication, we develop strategies as we go throughout the year and eliminate problems before the child feels that they’re so far behind they can’t even try.”
As for after Smith? Students are given real-world experience even though they go to a small school with only 49 other kids and a group of friendly, dedicated staff. Levin runs a program with speech and language pathologist Judy Nussbaum teaching practical skills to what Levin called social learners. Those are exceedingly few – 98 percent of the school’s students don’t need real world training to continue their education beyond Smith, she said.
Tuten, while reasonably nervous for university, is ready to go. “I learned how to advocate for myself and that’s a huge part of being an adult,” she said. “I think Smith has prepared me in a way I won’t fully realize until I go away.”